Would it surprise you to learn that more than 1 million people in the US search “Alexa” each month? More than two and a half years since Amazon announced Alexa alongside Echo, people are still wondering about the personal assistant. That is perhaps more of a testament to Amazon’s strategy and Alexa’s “build” than anything else. To be able to keep high levels of curiosity after four or five Alexa-powered devices speaks volumes on its own. With Amazon’s latest Echo offering – Echo Show – focus of the consumer public shifts to Alexa once more. Rightfully so, we might add, as there are many layers to online retailer’s voice agent.
So, what is Alexa?
What Is Alexa – Origins
It’s a name that is usually short for Alexandra, as any Alexandra will testify. More importantly and relevant to our story, Alexa is Amazon’s intelligent digital assistant. It listens to your voice commands and responds with contextual responses to perform the task at hand. That includes playing music and videos, doing shopping, getting organized through calendar and email management, create to-do lists, even control your other smart home products… And it grows smarter through third-party development and integration. You name it, Alexa can do it. Oh, and speaking of the name – the digital assistant’s one supposedly comes from the ancient library of Alexandria. Given the smarts it possesses, this makes perfect sense. Another reason for the name Alexa was the X in the name – a hard consonant that could be recognized with higher precision. This just shows how strong Amazon’s commitment was.
To look at the bigger picture and answer “What Is Alexa” in context, we need to look a few years back. Six, to be precise, to 2011 when Lab126, Amazon’s secretive in-house development lab, released the Kindle Fire tablet. Soon after, plans to put in motion an intelligent voice system became one of the company’s primary targets. Alexa was closely tied to Echo from the start, stuck in the development cycle to match the perfectionist demands of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Core focus was on the quality of speaking, constantly improving it through relentless testing. Perhaps the reason why Amazon put so much effort in Alexa was that of its foresight. It saw the voice agent as an omnipresent being in other devices, serving as a wide platform. Once Echo came out to a worldwide release, Alexa became a sleeper hit and one of the best smart personal assistants around.
That’s enough history for now, let’s move on to Alexa’s actual functions.
What Is Alexa – Functionality
First, you need an Alexa-powered or enable device. Second, Alexa is always listening which is why it’s able to respond quickly. If that is too much invasion for you, depending on the Alexa-enabled device you use, there is usually an off button for the microphone to give you some privacy. With Alexa listening, you have to say the wake word. The default is “Alexa”, but you can change it to “Echo”, “Amazon” or “computer”. After the wake word, the microphone records everything that follows and sends it to Amazon’s cloud service for a quick analysis. So, it would be something like “Alexa, play some music.” or “Echo, what will the weather be like tomorrow?”. You get the point
It’s important to mention Alexa App, the companion app for your mobile device. It allows owners of Alexa-enabled devices to perform every action through a smartphone. This includes installing skills, controlling media, managing alarms, reminders, other smart home products and so on. The app isn’t necessary to use Alexa but it provides a nice supplement to round out the experience.
Now that you know how to activate Alexa, the fun begins.
Since it primarily comes with a speaker, Alexa has one of the highest values in the entertainment department. It supports a variety of entertainment services like Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, Audible, Amazon Photos (with Echo Show) and much more. The best part? You can add more through Alexa Skills (we’ll get to that in a minute). Alexa can also make you more organized by managing your Google Calendar, setting up new reminders and events, providing news, weather and traffic reports so you can get around with ease, as well as created to-do lists and shop for you.
However, the smart home management is where the assistant truly shines. Right from the box, Alexa supports major smart home products that come from WeMo, Nest, Philips Hue and many others. It can adjust the temperature in your home, change the lighting, lock and unlock the doors, activate your sprinkler system and tons of other devices. Alexa’s smart home talents are one of its selling points, and rightfully so. It makes routine daily tasks much easier and faster, as well as those more advanced. And, with third-party integration, the limit is practically non-existent.
How to make Alexa better
The real beauty of Alexa is Alexa Skills, the third-party extensions that significantly expand the assistant’s reach. Once again, this shows the true vision of Amazon who made the assistant infinitely better by “opening it up” to third-party developers for further integrations. Latest, a few months old data says there are more than 10,000 available skills. Sure, not all of them are useful but that’s more integrations than any other counterpart. Skills encompass many categories, like entertainment, sports, entertainment, news, social media, and so on. For instance, you can order a ride, pizza, book a flight, play games, get news summaries and tons more. There is no limit to the number of skills you can add so that Alexa can get infinitely smarter as more and more developers join in on the fun. This includes managing your Samsung refrigerator or starting and interacting with your Ford vehicle. Nifty, eh?
Problems With Alexa
Like every other virtual assistant out there, Alexa is no stranger to poor understanding of user commands and inadequate responses. More so in Alexa’s case, it understands one command at a time. “Alexa, play music and turn up the temperature” aren’t yet a part of the assistant’s understanding. This is somewhat eased by the ability to create groups or routines, but still, you need to address individual groups or devices separately. However, it’s a cloud-based service and it’s an Amazon offering. That means it is constantly being updated and evolving into a more sophisticated piece of software. Thanks to machine learning technology behind it, the more you use Alexa, the more accustomed and intelligent it will be.
So, what is Alexa? Amazon’s Alexa is a prime example of how voice control frees you from the clutches of your mobile device. If you found the change from manually flipping the switch to remotely setting through your smartphone, then you’ll simply love the way Alexa controls virtually everything and manages practically anything. It’s specifically appealing to smart home users that enjoy practical and effortless smart solutions. As it grows day by day, Alexa is definitely in that category, and one of the best there is, if not the best.